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The Cambridge-MIT Institute And Cultural Challenges

Guest Column
Jason H. Wasfy

A few weeks ago, I rented a car and drove from Oxford to Cambridge to visit a dear friend of mine from MIT who is studying as a junior-year exchange student in the first full-blown year of the new Cambridge-MIT Institute. I was eager to hear about her impressions of the differences between MIT and Cambridge. What she told me surprised me. Not what she told me about her own experiences -- what was more provoking was what she told me about how the Cambridge students were adapting to MIT.

Part of the problem, apparently, is something MIT officials had realized would come up as early as last year, although as far as I know they didn’t acknowledge the concern publicly. Since MIT in general is so under-invested in undergraduate education and especially in undergraduate advising, the Cambridge students are uncomfortable making the transition from the interactive education so characteristic of Cambridge to the impersonal lectures and lack of meaningful contact so common to classes in most MIT departments.

I was interested to learn more about how MIT and Cambridge were matching up in this first year of full partnership. At a reception last week at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, I found an opportunity to hear an outside perspective when the vice-chancellor of Oxford began heralding the benefits of the recent partnership between Oxford and Princeton. “Which do you think is a better match,” I asked the vice-chancellor, the top man at Oxford, “this Oxford-Princeton partnership or the Cambridge-MIT Institute?”

He replied that he thinks the Oxford-Princeton relationship will work more smoothly because the two institutions share more common values, including an emphasis on undergraduate education. Cambridge’s need to translate its top-notch engineering and science programs into economic development and innovation in the private sector, the vice-chancellor said, drove Cambridge and MIT together -- not common values. In fact, Cambridge’s need to create a broader technology sector in Britain is so acute that the British government paid for the entire Cambridge-MIT Institute. MIT didn’t pay one cent.

But then the vice-chancellor went one step further. Because of intense British government pressure, the establishment of the Cambridge-MIT Institute resembled a “shotgun wedding.”

Now pointing out potential challenges in the new relationship between two overseas universities is one matter. But a well-informed observer comparing that relationship to the forced marriage of a pregnant girl and her boyfriend is quite another.

His comment underscores the major cultural challenges that the Cambridge-MIT Institute has faced and will continue to face. The problems are certainly not limited to MIT’s general lack of focus on the undergraduate program. One eminent professor at MIT who I know well was considering spending time at Cambridge through the faculty exchange but decided against that move because she knew that her highly interdisciplinary work would not mesh well with the rigid disciplinary boundaries at Cambridge. Another problem is that since few MIT students historically have studied abroad, departments at MIT are going to have to struggle to develop reasonable and consistent policies for accepting Cambridge course credit.

And one of the most confounding problems is that whatever institutional reform Cambridge requires to move into the new century, MIT people shouldn’t count on reform anytime soon. The structure of Oxford and Cambridge -- with their decentralized college systems and maze of inertia-prone faculty governance rules -- makes reform almost impossible for central administrators.

I don’t mean to cast doubt on this new program, because I think it’s a wonderful idea. But both Cambridge and MIT need to reflect soberly on the challenges that this year has brought and think creatively about how both institutions can smooth out the program’s rough spots.

What may turn out to prove so wonderful about the Cambridge-MIT Institute is that it will force both institutions to reconsider central goals and purposes that have gone unchallenged for too long. Maybe the Cambridge-MIT Institute will even force MIT to fix its serious flaws in undergraduate departmental advising -- and that’s a worthy goal that my columns on this page certainly never have attained.

Jason H. Wasfy ’01 is a Marshall Scholar and a graduate student in politics at New College, Oxford.